“Karlag” is the abbreviation of Karagandinskii ispravitel’no-trudovoi lager (Карагандинский исправительно-трудовой лагер), the Russian for Karaganda Corrective Labor Camp, the largest of the camps that comprised the Gulag. On my recent trip to Karaganda, I spent my first day at Dolinka, a small town 45km to the southwest. Dolinka was home to Karlag headquarters. The old administrative building from which Karlag was run is now a museum to Stalin’s victims.
The Gulag was most notably introduced to the West by Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago (1973). Under Stalin, Soviet “criminals” were sent to labor camps in some of the least hospitable regions of the USSR to perform hard labor: coal mining in Kolyma, agriculture on the Kazakh steppe, the construction of the Belomor canal north of Moscow. According to an authoritative study by Steven A. Barnes, Death and Redemption, 18 million souls passed through the Gulag system–approximately 6% of the USSR’s population as it was in 1991–and many died or otherwise never returned to their families and homes.
There are many myths that surround the Gulag. One is that it was a wholly capricious system in which the majority of inmates were innocent of crimes as we, in the West, perceive crime. Another is that the Gulag was a system of death camps.
Karlag’s history demonstrates that it is wrong to think of the Soviet corrective labor system as similar in a substantive way either to German concentration camps on the one hand or the American internment camps for Japanese[-Americans] in WWII on the other. For one thing, Karlag was much larger than any camps in either of those systems: 200km wide at its widest and 300km long at its tallest, our tour guide at Dolinka compared it to the size of France (670,000sq. km). This is not quite accurate because Karlag was not a rectangle, but the point stands. This camp was on the scale of small or mid-sized European countries. There is no way that such a massive territory could be efficiently patrolled and guarded as to be impenetrable either in or out.
Moreover, as Barnes argues convincingly, unlike a Nazi camp, Karlag was a penal colony with the reeducation through labor and reintegration of its prisoner population into Soviet society as its ultimate goal. At Karlag, inmates were put to work by and large in agriculture and animal herding.
Lastly, the inmates ranged from prisoners of political conscience and innocents ratted out for allegedly having spoken even a few words against the State to hardened criminals, POWs and others who might “conventionally” be considered threats to the the general population. Again drawing from Barnes, the
Gulag system developed a remarkably complex bureaucracy and system of institution with which to sort and categorize prisoners: those considered more dangerous were sent to the most distant and difficult camps.
None of this is to say, however, that the system was not deeply perverse. The “most dangerous” criminals were those who were the “counterrevolutionary agitators,” i.e. “politicals” from the intelligentsia. Thieves and professional criminals were treated with greater leniency because, in the eyes of the state, these people were closer to the working classes and more redeemable.
Furthermore, Stalin frequently classed whole populations of people as suspect and had them deported into the Soviet hinterland. Thus in the 1930s Poles were the first to be relocated from the European Soviet Union to Kazakhstan; later quite literally all of the Chechens and the Ingush were deported to Karaganda. But as in Dante’s Inferno, there were gradations of Hell. The deportees did not technically live within the borders of Karlag. They lived much as the free citizens of Kazakhstan at the time. However, Karlag’s administration was bureaucratically responsible for the deportee populations, and the deportees could not freely relocate elsewhere. They were, in effect, put under house arrest in new homes in a different republic of the Soviet Union. Interestingly – and something never mentioned in the museum at Dolinka – Barnes writes that ethnic Kazakhs were rarely incarcerated at Karlag. It would have been too easy for them to slip into the steppe and hide among the free population. Kazakh Gulag prisoners were sent to camps within Russia.
The museum was otherwise decent, but the fate to befall Karlag inmates and deportees was better communicated by walking across the land these people were forced to work and from which they had to eek not only subsistence, but also production quotas of wheat. Labor above and beyond the Plan was the way to demonstrate ones reform and commitment to Soviet society. But even on the spring day on which I visited, it was cold and wet, and the soil looked neither rich nor fertile. It is hard to imagine inmates’ suffering in the depths of winter and peaks of summer.
An associated monument to Stalin’s victims is at Spassk, the site of a former POW camp under the umbrella of Karlag. Spassk now houses a series of monuments. Countries from which citizens were interned either as military combatants or as suspect peoples have erected stone markers reminiscent of large gravestones. The countries include Belorussia, Russia, Ukraine and also France, Korea and Israel, among others. Each has a simple inscription in several languages. There is little fanfare around the stones; behind them stand several unmarked black crosses of different sizes and unknown provenance. Together, the markers are a quiet, dignified and fitting memorial out on the steppe.